Consuming devotions: The negotiation of tradition in contemporary New Mexico 'santos'

Laurie Beth Kalb, University of Pennsylvania


Throughout the twentieth century, santos (Hispano Catholic religious images) have represented northern New Mexico Hispano culture to the general public. These objects have held more power than the community members who produced them. Collected, marketed, and otherwise consumed by Anglo patrons in the early twentieth century, handmade santos became detached from their local religious associations. Valued by members of the dominant culture for their beauty, spirituality, "authenticity," age, and economic worth, santos entered the elite realm of "art." Within the past twenty years, contemporary santeros (makers of religious images) have attempted to reclaim the power of handmade santos. Rejecting the dictates of Anglo dominated markets, that at first encouraged production of unpainted images to suit consumer tastes, many santeros now make polychrome wooden images. They reach back to expressive forms of the Spanish colonial period rather than to the Anglo market and gather their own versions of tradition. Researching, however, the roots of their past, contemporary woodcarvers use the methods and tools of the Anglo revivalists. They look to the pastoral landscape as a source of empowerment. With their own reconstructed versions of tradition, contemporary woodcarvers find a voice through the same presentational mode as the dominant culture: exhibiting. They showcase their carvings, homes, and select aspects of their lives to themselves and outside visitors. Although some critics question whether it is viable for minority cultures to appropriate the dominant culture's strategies to achieve independent voices, at least for contemporary santos, exhibiting, with its corollaries, marketing, and museumizing, are as much a part of tradition as religion. The production of contemporary santos continues because of four motivating factors: politics, the fine art world, tourism, and religion. Although individual artists may work primarily within one of these spheres, their carvings suggest a "to-ing and fro-ing" between multiple experiences. Today, the expressive possibilities for santeros are dynamic and complex; the expression itself is open for constant reinvention. As a result of complicated negotiations and representations, for contemporary woodcarvers, this complexity signifies cultural purity.

Subject Area

Folklore|Cultural anthropology|Art History|Fine Arts

Recommended Citation

Kalb, Laurie Beth, "Consuming devotions: The negotiation of tradition in contemporary New Mexico 'santos'" (1992). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9227692.